And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison. Acts 24:27b
The heartbeat of obedience over worldly tactics and success metrics continues. It was so important for God to preserve these stories for us, and it is so essential for us to pause and let them soak in. We tend to look at leaders of the faith as major success stories who just had things go right; go their way. That they had a clear mission and plan and executed it flawlessly. That they were extraordinarily gifted in all manner of leadership and communication. That they were given red carpet welcomes and sparkly open doors. But that is simply not the case. The heroes of the faith were obedient. Period. They trusted God; they had faith; they did what He said. They were often in unfavorable circumstances. They usually waited a loooooooong time for things to develop…often not even seeing the end result. Whatever we see on the surface is a breaking through of the steady root-building underground. If we want to be a disciple, THIS is what it really looks like.
For over two years Paul sits in prison because the one who knew he was innocent and had the power to set him free was a power-hungry, money-hungry coward. He afforded Paul liberties and summoned him often to hear what he had to say, but for two years he deflected and delayed any action. Not only did he delay and reject the opportunity to free the one he knew had truth on his side, but he also delayed and rejected accepting the ultimate truth for himself.
How many people like Felix do we know? He knew the truth. In fact, we are told he, “had an accurate knowledge of the Way.” But it didn’t change him. He was even afraid. But fear doesn’t change us either. We can be scared of condemnation with no conviction toward repentance. Felix sends for Paul often and converses with him. Frequent exposure doesn’t change his heart. Instead, Felix tells Paul to go away. We are good at brushing off confronting truth. Felix secretly hopes for bribes to release Paul. Love of stuff, fear of man, and preservation of status and power keep Felix blind to the Gospel. And as Felix is outed from power and his esteemed position, he leaves unchanged and he leaves Paul in prison…his one last attempt to appease the Jews and gain some favor.
Questions: Who in your life is like Felix? They know about Jesus, but they don’t submit to Jesus? Pray that God will soften their heart TODAY.
And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. Acts 23:10
Alone Paul sits in the dusty dark prison barracks. “Is that how it is going to end?” he is likely wondering. In physical pain, doubting, afraid, disappointed, Paul sits alone. But not for long. Jesus comes and stands by him and says, “Take courage…” Not only does Jesus know precisely where Paul is physically, but He also knows where he is emotionally. He knows Paul is afraid and alone, and He comes to stand by him and provide encouragement.
Jesus continues, “…for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” If Paul thought this was the end, it is only the beginning of something new…new people, new territory, a new mission field to testify about Jesus, the Messiah.
No longer alone. No longer feeling unsuccessful or unusable. Paul has renewed power and renewed hope. Somehow from the barracks in Caesarea – a place he didn’t think he would get out of alive -- he knows he will be going to Rome, a place he deeply desired to go. He doesn’t know how or under what circumstances, but the Lord told him he would testify there and he knows it to be so.
Sometimes Jesus helps us escape from where we are, and sometimes He comes and joins us where we are. Either way, He promises to always be with us.
If you are frustrated with your current situation, feeling regret over past failures, or fearful about the future…Take courage. Jesus is with you. There is still work to do, no matter where you find yourself today. He can find you anywhere, and He has extraordinary ways of getting you exactly where you need to be when you need to be there. Take courage.
Question: Do you feel like you are stuck in an impossible place or situation? Be alert and on the lookout for Jesus. He will come to you and show you the way.
And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. Acts 22:2
Though a prisoner, Paul is granted permission to speak to the Jewish people by his Roman captors. In Aramaic – their language – he begins to speak. Jew to Jew. He is basically saying, “I was just like you. I was once where you are right this very minute. I was attacking those against us. I know where you are coming from!” I imagine Paul silently continuing in his head, “…but I was wrong. We were wrong. Jesus is the Messiah we have been waiting on for so long. If you meet Him like I met Him, you would see.”
Paul is telling a beautiful story of God’s pursuit of him, even while he was actively and viciously rejecting Him. God continues to pursue the Jews that persecute His followers. He continues to pursue us even when we reject Him.
In Paul’s account of his transformation, we uncover another truth about how God often works: one step at a time. We like everything spelled out in detail and to completion. We want to know exactly what we will be doing and what the price will be. But God usually leads us one step at a time, not telling us what step two is until we take step one. A great light appeared to Paul and he heard Jesus speak. His only instructions: “Rise, and go into Damascus.” He could have thrown himself on the ground and wailed about his blindness, or continued in his rejection of Jesus, but instead, he went. He was obedient in step one, which opened the door to step two.
While we pray for God to show us His will, God says, “take step one.” I’m betting we all have some idea what our step one is. We’ve known it and heard it for some time now, but we are waiting for more. We want more details and what the result will look like. But God continues to whisper, “step one is all you need for now.” Step one equips us for step two, which equips us for subsequent steps. If we saw the entire path without knowing the equipping along the way, we would likely reject it.
Challenge: Think about that step God is telling you to take. What can you do today to take that first step?
Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Acts 19:32
A common theme in the Bible – and still in our lives today – involves a group of people getting upset because their power base is being disrupted. They aren’t interested in truth, but only what will keep the power, esteem, and money rolling in. And since truth isn’t on their side, they resort to other efforts, finding new ways to generate buzz and stir up the crowds. If they can’t win with truth, they will win with the mobs. The crazy thing is, it is sooo easy to do. People love to follow. People blindly follow. People go to the loud voices craftily manipulating them.
In Acts 19 we meet a silversmith, Demetrius, whose way of life is being messed with and who has something to say about it. The gold, silver, and bronze idols they create are rolling in the dough. The worship of all these false gods must go on. But this Paul character and his friends are converting people to Christianity and persuading many that gods made with hands are not gods at all. Demetrius incites his counterparts to begin crying out. Others hear the chants and begin to whisper and wonder what is going on. They lean into the chaos and confusion. They gather friends and rush to join the mob. As bystanders see the people run by, they too join in. They don’t want to miss something good, after all. Masses rushing in and shouting, and most don’t even know why they are there.
We live in a time where messages can flow and spread so far so fast. There are more tools to manipulate and stir up a mob mentality. People are so quick to rush into the metaphorical theater running high on emotion and low on facts and to begin shouting, even if they don’t even really know why they are there. It is such a wake-up call to understand what we are hearing, reading, seeing, following and to know how to bump it up against truth. The authority of truth is God’s word, and we need to know it ourselves. We should seek to follow Jesus, not just His followers and certainly not the misguided crowd.
Questions: Where have you seen mob mentality at work? Have you experienced people blindly and naively following the crowds?
And he [Paul] stayed [in Corinth] a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. Acts 18:11
From Athens, Paul travels to Corinth. A city also full of idols, but on a different level. Corinth is a relatively new and bustling city. It is a military base and trading port. Alcohol and prostitutes flow freely. Where the Athenians idolized intelligence, the Corinthians idolize wealth and pleasure.
It is tempting to think that Paul has this supernatural bravery. He is diligently and passionately pursuing that which God has called him to despite consistent persecution and rejection. But in his letter to the Corinthians, he writes of this visit, “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” (1 Corinthians 2:3).
The opposite of fear is not bravery, it is faith. It is stepping into God’s plan and God’s territory and trusting the process. Despite Paul’s fears, he pushes through, and God is with him. While in Corinth the Lord spoke to him in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you...”
Just when Paul needed it most, God shows up and provides the comfort and encouragement he needs to persevere. And He also provides friends and fellow workers, Priscilla and Aquila, who were tentmakers like himself. God never intended for us to do this thing on our own or in our own measly abilities.
We can be tempted to read the incredible accounts in the Bible and believe everything happens so easily and quickly with people much stronger and smarter and braver than we are. But it is more often than not a slow and steady process, by flawed people, riddled with rejection and trials along the way. It is often laced with uncertainty, failures, and fears. And this is when God shows up to give just what is needed to keep going. When we are weak, God’s strength is magnified.
Question: When have you experienced God providing the encouragement or support you need right when you need it?
All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. Acts 17:21
Paul walks the impressive city streets of Athens. He examines the countless structures to all manner of gods. Athens prides itself on its intellectual prowess. The city is full of brilliant men and scholars. And yet they keep constructing more temples, looking to more gods than they can count, and even establishing a place of worship for “the unknown god.” They know there is something there, but they just don’t know what it is. All their knowledge still leaves them unsatisfied.
Today we have even more access to information. Knowledge abounds. But wisdom is scarce. Like the Athenians, we too seek to fill that hole. We gain knowledge. We acquire more stuff. We try the next new thing. We follow the latest formula. But we remain unsatisfied. These aren’t the things that will fill that place within us.
Paul addresses the Athenian seekers. He basically says, “Hey, you know that unknown god over there…you worship him, but you don’t know him. I KNOW HIM. Let me tell you about Him.”
God created us to know Him and to give Him glory. This desire is planted within each of us. It cries out within us regardless of our current beliefs. It pursues us. There is contentment, peace, and joy -- even in the hard -- that is found in knowing Him. But instead, we search everywhere else to fill that God-sized place within us.
Sin separates us from the one who created us and the only fit for that place within us. We search and search for ways to fill it. Some temporarily do an average job at it, but the gaps of not being a perfect fit grow wider and wider with time, leaving us just as unfulfilled and often in a worse state. Jesus came to remove that separation. Through Jesus, we can KNOW God. The perfect and only fit for that seeking hole within us.
Questions: What things have you, or do you currently, try to fill that void you feel in your life with instead of God? How is it that we have access to so much knowledge, but still lack wisdom as to what truly satisfies us?
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. Acts 16:6
Paul has a front-row seat in the explosive growth of the new Christian church, with joyful memories and deep wounds to prove it. He is taking seriously the call to go and make disciples to the ends of the earth. He has a plan, and nothing can stop him…or can it?
Next up on Paul’s agenda, Asia. But the Holy Spirit forbids him to speak the word there. Change of plans…Bithynia. Again, a ‘no’ from the Spirit that doesn’t allow him to minister there.
Do you ever have doors that just seem to keep closing? They are good things. Really good things; Godly things. They line up with Scripture. You wonder why it just isn’t happening. So, you just keep trying harder; looking for new avenues. You become more determined, refusing to take no for an answer. But yet, the doors are airtight. Nothing is happening.
David Guzik reminds us, “The Holy Spirit often guides as much by the closing of doors as He does by the opening of doors.” This was certainly the case with Paul and his companions. His ministry will eventually take him to these places, but not now. Not yet. God has other plans for this season and this missionary tour.
We know that Paul is disciplined in prayer and fasting, positioning to follow God’s direction. Instead of Paul’s plans, God gives him a vision that leads him to Macedonia. God’s plan was Europe before Asia. Dead ends and temporary disappointments become new directions. Sometimes we don’t get what we want or go where we want – even when they are good things. But obstacles can become blessings when we pray about that ‘no,’ spend time with God and wait to hear what His ‘yes’ is instead. God doesn’t say no just for the sake of no. We need to submit to the ‘no’ to hear the ‘yes.’ The more we fight the ‘no,’ the more we miss out on God’s higher plan. Only the Holy Spirit can direct us when to keep fighting and when to change course. Our job is to listen and be flexible in obedience.
Questions: Do you have any areas in your life that God is saying “no” to in this season? How hard is it for you to trust God’s “no”s?
And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Acts 15:39a
The church is beautiful, but it is a conglomeration of people, which also makes it messy. Even in the early church, we see two disputes: a macro dispute over salvation (a deal-breaker theological issue) and a micro dispute of differing opinions between two people. There are timeless lessons here when we are faced with both.
Back at Antioch from Jerusalem, the matter of salvation settled and communicated, Paul suggests he and Barnabas return to visit the churches they planted to check on them. Barnabas wants to take John Mark, but Paul argues against it. After all, Mark had let them down on their last missionary journey. Both dig in their heels, “and there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.” Barnabas takes Mark and heads to Cyprus. Paul takes Silas and heads in an entirely different direction. Luke doesn’t say who was at fault…perhaps neither was. Perhaps Barnabas, the encourager, felt his calling in this season was to be an encouragement to Mark. Perhaps it was time to move on; to divide and conquer...no longer one ministry in one place, now two ministries covering even more territory. And on Paul’s new journeys with Silas, Timothy – who becomes like a son to Paul – join them.
Unlike the issue of circumcision for salvation, this was no deal-breaker dispute. Though they didn’t resolve it, they didn’t drag the church down with them. They didn’t let it derail them or cause church friction. They didn’t go out and bash the other, instead, they went out and furthered the Gospel message. They remained united in cause and message, though separated for a time. We see later in Paul’s letters that he ministers with Mark, and even specifically asks for him in his last recorded letter.
Issues of salvation are always worth the fight, but personal preferences and callings may lead us down different paths, which we must walk in love for our brothers and sisters, not as a platform to hurl insults and create disunity. We need discernment about when to dig in our heels and when to agree to disagree. And ALWAYS we need to look to GOD'S WORD.
Questions: How can we be careful to not treat all disputes equally and to know when to fight and when to agree to disagree?
And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. Acts 15:2
Jewish Christians come from Judea to Antioch (the headquarters of non-Jewish converts to Christianity) teaching that unless the Gentile (non-Jewish) believers are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they could not be saved. Basically, they felt Gentiles had to first become Jews before they could become Christians. They clung tightly to the Jewish people being God’s exclusively chosen people. Naturally, this was a hard thing for them to break free from. It was such a big part of their life and culture for generations. They had no problem with Jesus... as long as they also followed Jewish laws and rituals to be saved.
Paul and Barnabas initially attempt to persuade them otherwise; to help them see and understand that it is faith in the grace and work of Jesus ALONE that saves us. But their persuasion falls on deaf ears, and they can’t let it go. This was no insignificant issue…this had to do with SALVATION. This was about the core of Christianity. It wasn’t a nuanced belief or preference, but the essence of Christianity. A matter that needed to be elevated, addressed and resolved.
A decision is made to go to Jerusalem to have the matter settled by the apostles and the elders. The question at hand: Are Christians saved by faith in Jesus alone or by faith PLUS obeying the law of Moses? Is the work of Jesus enough, or do we also need our own works?
After warm greetings and much discussion and debate, Peter rises to reflect on what God had been doing and how He had given the Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit just as they had received it. James also responds, pointing to Scripture to confirm what Peter, Paul, and Barnabas were saying. Through what is referred to as the Jerusalem Council…bringing people together, discussions, debating, listening, and most importantly reflecting on the work of God and the word of God, the issue is settled. Jesus alone saves us.
Questions: How can different ideas divide us and drive us off course? How do we know what the big things are that need unity and agreement?
But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. Acts 14:4
Twelve truths are tucked into Acts 14…
Challenge: Read Acts 14 to see each of these truths. What is your favorite truth in this chapter in this season of your life?
Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:3
So here they are. Amidst persecution and deliverance; preaching and unfathomable growth. The refrain of Jesus’s commission rings steadily….GO! Make disciples to the ends of the earth. But tactically, what now? Where to go? How? Who? What roles for each person? Where to start? What does it look like?
Do you ever feel like that?
The diverse and beautiful church body is worshiping, praying and fasting together over these questions. It isn’t the theological questions, but the directional questions related to the bigger calling. They want to be obedient to the larger calling, and they want the Holy Spirit to guide them in all their ways.
While worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the work to which I have called them.” The time is now. The men are Paul and Barnabas.
The church is in a posture to hear God, and He speaks to them. God works by sending people out with a call and the power of the Holy Spirit for the good works He has prepared in advance for them.
It isn’t always easy to GO when you are in a close-knit community where you are loved, cared for, comforted and feel at home. Being set apart and sent off is hard.
So, you know what this church body does? They fast and pray some more. Then they lay hands on Barnabas and Saul – a prayer and commissioning – and send them off. Paul, the well-educated, fiery, former persecutor, and Barnabas, the respected “son of encouragement” go. And their going launches a movement of church planting and teaching that changes the entire Roman world.
Questions: What are you being set apart from/for? What disciplines have you incorporated into your life to hear God?
And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. Acts 10:45
God gives Peter insight and clear instructions. God is gentle with Peter, knowing this would be hard for him as his heart is being softened and long-held ideas shattered.
Peter accompanies the men sent by Cornelius to Caesarea. Something unheard of and strictly forbidden…or at least Peter thought. Devout Jews didn’t associate with Gentiles. Peter could have rattled off a list of Old Testament passages that supported staying away. But Peter obeys God. It is important to know that God is not inconsistent. While the Israelites were a set apart people before the blood of Jesus washed away all sins perfectly and permanently, God also told them that His Salvation was for all nations. God promised Abraham that the blessing to come through his descendants would extend to all nations. God will never call us to do something that is not in line with His Word or character.
Peter enters the house of Cornelius acknowledging, “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate or visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” Barriers are breaking down. Peter realizing the vision is about more than just food. Peter continues, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Then he shares the Gospel as he would with a fellow Jew. Mid-sermon the Holy Spirit falls on all who heard the word. The Holy Spirit came to these believing Gentiles as it had to the believing Jews.
Cornelius becomes the first of many Gentile converts to Christianity. The angel that appeared to Cornelius could have shared the Gospel with him, but God graciously orchestrated Peter to be the one to step out of his comfort zone and prejudices and witness the start of something beautiful.
Challenge: Spend time in prayer asking God to reveal any prejudices you may have that are keeping you from seeing His perfect plans. Ask God to open your eyes, mind, and heart to His truth.
And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Acts 10:15
As ugly as it is and as much as we don’t want to believe it, we all have prejudices. Places we pre-judge; pre-convict others. We are prone toward judgment, bias, and justifying our actions while condemning others. Even if we genuinely and sincerely don’t want to.
In Acts 10 we see how gentle God is with us when He is breaking down our prejudices to further His kingdom. I don’t know about you, but this is what I want. I want to chase truth, not just my idea of what truth is. I want God to soften my heart where I am wrong about things that don’t line up with His truth.
The story begins with an essential prerequisite to understanding truth: time with God. Both of the main characters in this account, Cornelius (a Gentile Roman officer) and Peter (a devout Jew and apostle), are in the habit of time in prayer with God. Our chances of hearing and obeying God are significantly improved if we spend time with Him. During a time of prayer, they each hear from God. God is orchestrating a meet-up that will change both of their lives…and ours as well.
In prayer, Cornelius sees a vision, and God instructs him to send people to Joppa to bring Peter to his home to hear what he has to say.
Roughly thirty miles away, Peter is in prayer and falls into a trance. The heavens open and a great sheet descends, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals – clean and unclean according to Jewish law. God’s voice comes to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter has come a long way, but Peter is still Peter as he replies, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” God is patient with Peter. He replies, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Three times Peter received the same instructions. And while pondering the vision, the Spirit tells him three men sent by God have come, and Peter is to accompany them without hesitation.
Questions: Because of preconceived ideas or bias, do you think you ever miss people or assignments from God? How can you change this?
And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Acts 9:5
Saul is knee-deep and fully committed to ridding the world of “the Way” – the growing movement claiming Jesus alone as the Way to Salvation, the only Truth, and the source of Life.
Saul wasn’t looking for Jesus. Quite the opposite…he was looking to eliminate Jesus from the Jewish narrative. But Jesus was looking for Saul.
Mid-stride in Saul’s latest plot to destroy the Christian movement he is literally blinded by a light from heaven. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” the voice says. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asks. “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
Those traveling with Saul see nothing, but they all hear the voice. They guide their newly blind friend the rest of the way to Damascus. Three days of blindness and fasting before Saul (also called Paul) regains his sight, is filled with the Holy Spirit, gets baptized, and eats. His zeal is about to take a 180-degree turn… from an enemy of Jesus to one of His greatest advocates and messengers. From this point on, Paul’s entire life will be about knowing Jesus more intimately and making Him known. It will become his life’s mission. His knowledge of Jewish history, law, and prophecies, his zealous personality, his laser-focused determination will now be used for Jesus rather than against him. It won’t be easy – God even said He would show Saul how much he will suffer for His name – but Saul (Paul) won’t be deterred. He will travel and teach and plant churches and endure and comfort and correct and encourage and love, and he will write…oh, he will write; he will write the majority of the New Testament letters.
Challenge: Intentionally pray for a Paul in your life. That family member or friend or loved one that feels too far off to be saved; who is not only agnostic toward Jesus, but antagonistic; who is stubborn and hard-hearted. Take comfort in this truth displayed most beautifully in the life of Saul (Paul): There is NO ONE too far gone for God’s hands to reach and God’s plans to pursue.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:1
That day. The day that Stephen was stoned to death. The day that changed everything. The day they were sure they would look back on as one of the worst days of their lives; of the Christian movement. Stephen’s stoning opened the floodgates of brutal persecution against Christians. No longer the close-knit community huddled together over laughter, love, hope, security in knowing their brothers had their back, and of course good bread. They were scattered, separated, scared.
But yet, they shared the Gospel. They weren’t trained pastors or missionaries. They were regular people in love with Jesus. And where each one landed – Samaria, Gaza, Azotus, Caesarea, and everywhere in between; quiet desert roads and bustling towns – they shared the Good News. They created new community.
Rewind to Jesus’s command in Acts 1:8, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The Christian church was commanded to teach where they were (check!), but also to go (uh oh). They were comfortable in the staying, but reluctant in the going. Their ministry remained isolated in Jerusalem. Often when things are feeling easy, successful, comfortable, safe, we can get content in the staying even when we are called to go. David Guzik says, “Sometimes we have to be shaken out of our comfortable state before we do what God wants us to do.”
The persecution – though horrific – became a catalyst for going. Saul and his fellow persecutors’ attempt to nip this Jesus movement in the bud only served as a tidal wave of the Good News spreading even more quickly to even more places. God has a way of making the beautiful out of our “that day”; the worst days of our lives. His blueprint looks vastly different than ours.
Challenge: If you are in the midst of a “that day,” draw near to God. Open your Bible and start reading. Get on your knees and pray. Talk to God. He is in the business of making beauty out of ashes.
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Acts 7:59
Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, responds to the religious leaders’ charges against him with an overview of the Old Testament. Rather than defending himself against their attacks, he is boldly proclaiming truth. Essentially, he is showing how they are no different than their ancestors who continually rejected God. The religious elite don’t take this well. They endured this from Jesus while He was alive and they aren’t about to take it from His followers after His death. They are burning with rage.
Unafraid and undeterred, Stephen continues, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Jesus is there and He is standing. We often hear of Jesus seated at the right hand of God, but as Jesus watches this earthly encounter, He STANDS.
Standing in unity with Stephen. A standing ovation as the first of many Christian martyrs prepares to leave the pain, persecution, suffering, sin-filled earth; as Stephen is about to fall asleep in this life to awaken in a much better place face to face with Jesus standing to welcome him home.
The enraged Jewish leaders cast him out to be stoned. In Stephen’s death, he has the same attitude of the One he unashamedly follows to the bitter end; the One standing at the right hand of God...no doubt along with the Holy Spirit providing Stephen with peace, encouragement, and courage. Enduring the pounding of stones, he falls to his knees and cries out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Who can do this? Only one who KNOWS and sees Jesus.
Meanwhile, off to the side, a young zealous Jewish man named Saul is supervising the operations. Little does Saul know how powerful Stephen’s last words – his prayer to not hold this sin against them – will be answered in Saul’s life.
Questions: How is Stephen’s life and death an inspiration to you? What do you think about Jesus standing as Stephen looks on before his death?
…they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Acts 6:5
Do you ever look at others and feel less-than? Do you perceive others are more valued, useful, and gifted? Do you feel like you get stuck with all the “less impressive” assignments? Do you feel like you are always in the shadows, while others are brightly shining in the spotlight? I think many people struggle with this (even if we hate to admit it)! And when this is our mindset, we are quick to bristle at things like submission and the apostles saying things like, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” (Acts 6:2).
But let’s call it what it is…pride. It is a posture of self-pity and a desire for self-glorification. Contrast that with Stephen, one of the seven chosen to serve the widows. He is a picture of a beautiful, faithful, spirit-filled, unafraid and undeterred servant of God. He had the opposite reaction to being a part of this community. He wasn’t in the spotlight. He wasn’t in a leadership position. He was a regular guy; a Greek convert to Christianity. But God was his focus and prize. He joyfully stepped into his new role of service. And wow, was God ever beside him in it.
Instead of taking offense at a serving role, feeling it is below him or not an elevated enough status for his impeccable reputation and spiritual stature, Stephen thrives with his eyes fixed upward. He is filled with grace and power. He does great wonders and signs among the people. And this… “gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Oh, to be like Stephen.
When we step into our calling and ordained assignment instead of coveting someone else’s, the beautiful and holy happen. Our lives are in sync with what we were created to do. It is like a puzzle piece nestled in its created place. There is joy in living in our unique purpose each season. God, let us never look down at any assignment from You. Let us humbly and boldly step into them and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us. May we desire expansion of Your kingdom over expansion or our status.
Question: Do you generally embrace your assignments or covet the assignment someone else has been given?
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. Acts 6:1
The church is growing like crazy. So fast it can’t keep up with the needs of all the people. Add to it a mix of cultures, backgrounds, languages, and baggage among believers. The Hellenists (Greek converts) believed their widows were being neglected and not treated as equitably as the Hebrew (Jewish) widows. They are feeling divided on racial and cultural lines.
Satan is pulling out all the weapons to stop this new movement he knows will be the end of him. Externally, he is stirring up opposition, intimidation, and outright persecution. But he is working on the inside too, planting seeds of dissent and corruption, and working to pit internal groups against one another. Same old tried and true tactics he uses today.
The twelve apostles – the witnesses and primary teachers – can’t do it all. They are spread too thin, and balls are being dropped. The devil would love nothing more than to distract them from their primary calling to share and teach what they have SEEN and been imparted with. It might be tempting to think it would be noble of them to humble themselves to serve the Hellenistic widows, but that is not their calling in this season.
A plan is devised to select seven men to serve in this new role. It isn’t an afterthought, and it isn’t a lesser part. It is so valued and vital to the health of the church at this critical juncture. The requirements for service: good reputation, integrity, honesty, full of the Spirit, and wisdom. Yes, it essential that the Gospel is taught well by the apostles, but this work of serving, loving, caring, providing for the church is beautiful and holy to God.
In everyone doing their part, the Word spreads, and the church grows exponentially. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
Questions: When things are really happening and on fire for God, how have you seen Satan at work to stir things up? Does it cause more tension or turn into an opportunity to strengthen the work at hand?
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. Acts 4:13
Our inclination is to look for the quick fix to push us over the hump to meet our goals or do something bigger than ourselves. We search YouTube, infomercials, experts, friend’s advice, pills, podcasts, more training, self-help books…anything.
But the truth is, if we want to do something big in God’s kingdom, the formula is different. The secret sauce is in Acts 4:13… ”they had been with Jesus.”
The religious leaders are wracking their brains trying to figure out how these lowly fishermen and other nobodies – uneducated and unqualified – can be so empowered to heal people, give killer sermons and even call the Jewish elite out so boldly. They are unafraid. They are different. In the face of continued persecution, thousands believe the message they are preaching. “What is it?” they ask themselves. The only common denominator they can come up with: THEY HAD BEEN WITH JESUS.
Why do we search elsewhere in our everyday lives today when the truth is in our DNA? And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Jesus taught the same…seek first the kingdom, abide in Him, set our mind on things above… He even modeled it in how He always got away for quiet time with God the Father.
Perhaps we simply over-complicate things with so many voices pulling us in the world’s direction. What is impossible for man alone is quite possible with the Holy Spirit. But we have to be with Jesus to receive it.
If we want to be bold and do the impossible in the kingdom of God, we need to be with Jesus. Abiding in Him, filling ourselves with God’s Word, searching the Scriptures, asking for wisdom, being still and listening. Spurgeon says, “Live in such a way that men may recognize that you have been with Jesus.”
Challenge: Make intentional time to BE WITH JESUS this week.
And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Acts 3:2
Fresh off a Spirit-filled sermon, thousands of new Jesus followers, and passionate fellowship with believers, John and Peter walk the familiar steps to the temple at the hour of prayer.
Crowds gather, including the usual beggars. Friends carry a grown man, lame from birth, to the Beautiful Gate outside the temple. But he isn’t feeling very beautiful. Day after day others hoist him up and then lay him down at the gate. Day after day he begs for spare coins to make it to the next day. This is his lot, and he’s learned to make do. He has long since lost hope of anything more. On the outside he lays, and on the outside, he stays. Money for survival is what he needs, and this is the best place to get it.
Countless times Peter and John likely saw this man outside the temple. Perhaps they have even given him a coin or two. But today is different. The Holy Spirit speaks something in their soul about this man. Peter and John both feel it and direct their gaze on him. I imagine faith and power burning inside them ready to explode. Is that what it feels like?
“Look at us,” Peter says to the man. Don’t just see us; LOOK AT US; fix your eyes here.
The man looks up at Peter hopeful, expectant.
“I have no silver and gold…” Peter says. The man likely looks down, his countenance changed. The thing he expected, hoped for, needed isn’t going to come from this crew.
“…but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” Peter commands as he reaches out and takes the man by the right hand, raising him up to walk for the first time.
Questions: Are we asking for the right things? Are we seeking a meager handout or healing?
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47
A beautiful picture of Christian community is emerging in the early church. A people freshly filled with the Holy Spirit. A people on fire and on mission. A people deeply devoted to a kingdom bigger than themselves. They haven’t lost their first love or become lukewarm. It is the simplicity of fellowship and devotion to the Lord. So, what does it look like?
Devoting themselves to the Word. Devouring it together. Sitting under anointed teachers.
Fellowship with believers. Eating together. Praying together.
Witnessing wonders and signs outpouring from faith and obedience.
Taking care of one another. Sharing each other’s burdens.
Attending church together. Worshiping together.
Abundant gratitude and generosity.
And people on the outside notice. They want it.
Day by day new believers are added to the family.
God, let it be so in our lives.
Questions: How is your faith community similar to the early church? How does it differ? Are you in this type of Christian community?
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts 2:4
Francis Chan says, “If it’s true that the Spirit of God dwells in us and that our bodies are the Holy Spirit’s temple, then shouldn’t there be a huge difference between the person who has the Spirit of God living inside of him or her and the person who does not?”
Do you ever think about this? I think about it a lot! I think about the power of the Holy Spirit we see in Acts, and I’m convicted that we have this incredible power available to us – in us – and we are missing it somehow. We are suppressing it for I don’t know why…fear, comfort, familiar, pride, desires, cultural assimilation? I fear every time we try to do something in our own power and of our own will, we push further down this greater power inside us.
I often feel like I am one of the followers still stuck in the room before the Holy Spirit came. I know Jesus, I believe Jesus, I love Jesus, I declare Jesus my Lord and Savior…but I am still scared behind closed doors not receiving or activating the power that has been given to me. I am hesitant, still trying to maintain some false sense of control. And I am missing out.
God, break away any pride, fear, settling, striving, manipulating, coveting that is keeping me from tapping into the power You have already given me through my belief in the work of Jesus. Help me not to be so afraid of the mighty wind and tongues of fire, content with what the world says is “comfortable” and “safe.” I want all of You I can get – Father, Son, AND Holy Spirit. I don’t want to miss any of it. I want my life to look like something I could never do. Only You. As missionary David Brainerd said, “Lord, let me make a difference for you that is utterly disproportionate to who I am.”
Questions: Do you relate more to the people when they were huddled behind closed doors still a bit afraid, or with the spirit-filled transformed people boldly proclaiming the Gospel? If you still feel like you are stuck in that room, write a prayer to God in your journal about it.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. Acts 2:1
The men and women huddled in the upper room waiting for this power promised them KNEW the Son of God. They walked with Him, learned from Him, watched Him. They loved Him. They believed in Him. They trusted Him as their Lord and Savior. They followed Him, even when it wasn’t easy. They SAW and SPOKE to the resurrected Jesus. He breathed on them; commissioned them.
But here they sit. Gathered together behind closed doors…waiting…
…until…one day, while sitting behind those closed doors, a sound came out of nowhere. Loud, different from anything they had ever heard. The closest way to describe it is a MIGHTY RUSHING WIND. Strong, powerful. And it FILLED the entire house. Sound filling space. Out of the corner of their eyes, they see divided tongues as of fire appearing, then resting on EACH. ONE. OF. THEM. Words came out of their mouth they had never heard before. Suddenly a crowd starts to form outside the dwelling. People from EVERY nation under heaven gathering because they too heard the sound. Voices, so many voices…but yet so clear; understandable in each native language. It wasn’t just noise; it was beautiful. Impulsive, foot-in-his-mouth, often misguided Peter stands and lifts his voice. The first of many BOLD and BRAVE sermons under a new covenant. Thousands believe. And more and more each day.
THIS is the power of the Holy Spirit. THIS is the power we have in us.
Insignificant to Influential.
Fisherman to Fisher of Men.
Denier to Defender.
Spontaneous to Spirit-Led.
Terrified to Trailblazer.
Mess to Mighty Warrior.
Challenge: Write your _____ to ______ phrases of how you have seen, or would like to see, the power of the Holy Spirit work in your life.
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. Acts 1:12
After forty days of appearing to over 500 people and speaking of the kingdom of God, Jesus leaves His followers in the capable hands of the power that will soon come upon them.
The disciples make the short journey to Jerusalem as Jesus instructed. The plan? To wait. Power is coming. Power is promised. Power is needed for the charge at hand. Jerusalem is where the most devout Jews are…the ones who ordered Jesus crucified…the place Jesus encountered the most hostility. And this is where they are told to go and tell what they have seen and heard and learned. They go to the upper room, and they wait. This assignment can only happen with the help of something supernaturally more powerful than themselves.
Christian theologian James Boice says, “Humanly speaking, [Christianity] had nothing going for it. It had no money, no proven leaders, no technological tools for propagating the gospel. And it faced enormous obstacles. It was utterly new. It taught truths that were incredible to the unregenerate world. It was the subject to the most intense hatreds and persecutions.”
It doesn’t look promising at this point. Jesus is gone and 120 or so frightened, uneducated, unsure-what-to-do followers wait in an upper room. God’s story is so unlikely it can only be His.
We are the next generations of the 120 in that upper room. If we believe Jesus to be our Lord and Savior, we are witnesses. We have a story to tell…of what we have seen, and learned, and experienced with Him. We have spheres of influence and reach both near and far away…some friendly, some hostile. But like me, you may feel like the crew in the upper room. A bit paralyzed and scared and unqualified and overwhelmed by it all; not sure where to start. Keep reading, friends, this story is for you and me!
Questions: What do you think is going through the mind of the followers as they wait? What do you think they think they are waiting for?